KABUL, Afghanistan Aug. 27, 2009 -- The head of international forces told troops in Afghanistan today that they should focus less on killing Taliban and more on protecting civilians, a continuing shift in strategy as the war becomes increasingly deadly.
Today a roadside bomb and gun attack killed the 44th U.S. soldier in August, one fewer than killed in July, including troops who died outside of Afghanistan due to sickness. July and August have been the two deadliest months of the war, a spike caused largely by a surge of 21,000 troops arriving in volatile southern Afghanistan in the last few months.
That surge is meant to provide security in population centers that have had little to no western troop presence since the beginning of the war and is the cornerstone of the new strategy from recently arrived U.S. embassy and international forces staff.
That strategy calls for more troops and more money in cities, large villages and agriculture centers where the majority of the Afghan population lives so that they can protect the population from the Taliban. . And it calls for less fighting -- especially in remote, sparsely populated areas -- and more cooperation with local villagers.
"The Afghan people are the Objective. Protecting them is the mission. Focus 95 percent of your time building relationships with them and, together with the Afghan government, meeting their needs," says a counterinsurgency document released today by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international forces in Afghanistan.
"Get rid of the conventional mind-set. Focus on the people, not the militants. By earning their trust and helping an accountable [Afghan government] gain the support of the people, you take from the enemy what he can not afford to lose -- the control of the population."
McChrystal will request thousands of additional troops for Afghanistan, according to people familiar with his thinking, although it is not clear how many. That will be tied to a request of additional billions of dollars -- as much as $4.7 billion, according to military advisors -- to try and boost civilian spending on agriculture, local governance, and anti-corruption efforts.
Those requests for money and troops will come separately from a strategic review document that will be distributed as early as next Monday, according to McChrystal's aides. The review was requested by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he fired Gen. David McKiernan and replaced him with McChrystal in May.
Review Says Afghan War Has Not "Brought the Anticipated Benefits"
The review is evidence of increasing worry among U.S. military and civilian officials that the war, almost eight years in, has been slipping from their control. They hoped that the surge and a successful election would provide some stability to a fractious country. Instead, August has been defined by high fatalities and a vote dogged by low turnout and accusations of widespread fraud.
The review is an attempt to change how the U.S. thinks of the war, from the corporal stationed on a forward operating base all the way to the command in Kabul.
"Nearly eight years of international presence has not brought the anticipated benefits," says the counterinsurgency document released today. "We will not win simply by killing insurgents. We will help the Afghan people win by securing them, by protecting them from intimidation, violence, and abuse, and by operating in a way that respects their culture and religion. This means we must change the way that we think, act, and operate."
In addition to a military shift, the military has been have been pushing for a more integrated civilian-military approach to calming the country. Part of the push will be to keep officers working on Afghanistan longer.
One plan proposes a five year rotation between Afghanistan deployments and desk jobs involving in Afghanistan to try and create continuity, according to one military advisor. On the civilian side, officials are hoping to change the current policy in which most civilians spend only eight months in Afghanistan and are poorly trained for their jobs. Both military and civilian workers will have a greater focus on agriculture projects -- thought to offer jobs and therefore alternatives to joining the Taliban -- boosting local governance, and trying to combat corruption.
President Hamid Karzai has long been dogged by accusations of widespread graft, and U.S. officials believe that Afghans' disillusionment with democracy has helped fuel the insurgency. One of the major themes of the McChrystal review, according to one advisor, will be combating corruption.
Allegations of fraud extended into his campaign. His main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, accused Karzai of trying to planning to steal the election in an interview with ABC News.
Karzai Slammed Down Hat in Heated Meeting With Holbrooke
The allegations have helped increase tensions between the U.S. and the Afghan government, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. In a meeting between Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and Karzai after the election, Karzai was so upset at one point, he banged his hat against the table in exasperation, according to an Afghan official.
"It was not a good meeting," the official said.
McChrystal's review directly urges U.S. troops to question corrupt officials. "Facilitate and enable transparent and accountable governance," it says. "Protecting the people requires protection from physical harm, corruption and abuse of power."
One of the review's more long term suggestions – and likely one of its more expensive suggestions – is a call for the doubling of Afghan police and soldiers, according to people who have worked with the McChrystal on the review.
U.S. brigade combat teams will then be relocated to live with Afghan Army command teams, an attempt to force better training and mentoring by the U.S. on the Afghan forces.
"Live, eat, and train together, plan and operate together, depend on one another… Treat them as equal partners in success," according to the counterinsurgency document. "Their success is our goal. Respect them; put them in the lead and coach them to excellence."
Increased Afghan troops, commanders say, is the only reasonable plan to secure a country that is simply too large and too difficult to travel around for 100,000 international troops.
About 134,000 Afghan soldiers and 92,000 Afghan police are currently on the job or are being trained. The new plan would call for 240,000 Afghan troops and 160,000 police.
But the plan may cost as much as $80 billion over five years – roughly the equivalent of Afghanistan's annual GDP -- and will have to be approved by an increasingly skeptical Congress and American public. For the first time since the war began more than half of Americans said the war is not worth fighting, according to a ABC News/Washington Post poll. Just 42 percent said the U.S. was winning; 36 percent said it was losing. And by a nearly two to one ratio, Americans doubted whether the election would produce a government that could rule the country effectively.
That lack of support -- combined with financial constraints -- will make it more difficult for the White House to sell more troops and more money for Afghanistan.
"We have to maintain the ability to go after Al Qaeda within Afghanistan. It doesn't mean we give that up. But simply continuing operations there -- and apparently there are going to be requests for many more troops – I'm not sure it's a wise idea," Democratic Senator Russell Feingold said earlier this week.
Afghanistan Continues to Take Bloody Toll
Immediately before the election violence peaked with a massive suicide bombing right outside the gates of the international forces' headquarters. Election Day did not witness that kind of massive attack, but more than 70 incidents across the country killed nearly 30 people, according to the interior ministry. Since the election, one of the deadliest strikes of the war -- a massive car bomb that killed more than 40 in Kandahar -- was a reminder of just how violent the country can be, especially in southern Afghanistan.
Of the last 10 international troops that have died in Afghanistan, nine have been killed in the south, according to press releases. The service member killed today riding in a vehicle that was struck by a roadside bomb, according to a statement from international forces. The troops were then engaged with small arms fire.
One soldier who was killed yesterday died in a shootout with Taliban fighters who had taken their commander to a hospital in the eastern province of Paktika, according to the military.
Soldiers "were clearing the clinic when they received direct fire attack," according to the military statement. More troops arrived and once civilians had been cleared from the hospital, an attack helicopter fired on the building. The helicopter "injur[ed] the targeted insurgent in the building."
The new counterinsurgency barely mentions such aggressive fighting, instead urging soldiers to engage more with their time than with their arms.
"Security may not come from overwhelming firepower," the document says, "and force protection may mean more personal interaction with the Afghan people, not less."